When I first heard that the mercurial Onuche Ogbelu, the FOSLA Academy prodigy was missing from the list of players to represent Nigeria at the 2023 FIFA World Cup, I thought it was a silly joke. I felt so because if there is one player in the 2023 AFCON squad who deserves to be at the World Cup, it is Ogbelu. Although I considered it a prank, when I remembered that this is Nigeria where anything is possible, I decided to check the list submitted by coach Ladan Bosso. When I did, I was shocked to my marrows that the boy’s name was conspicuously missing.
Even though I wasn’t opportuned to play professional football, I played the game to a certain level. Apart from that, those who know me can attest to the fact that for so many years now, I have not done any other business apart from sports journalism. And even though I am not a trained coach, I am blessed with the ability to identify a good player whenever I saw one.
Having blown my trumpet sufficiently, let me proceed to say that the moment I set my eyes on Ogbelu, I saw an immensely talented football player who is destined for greatness. He was a student of FOSLA Academy in Karshi, Abuja where future stars are being groomed by a football enthusiast and former president of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), Alhaji Sani Lulu Abdullahi. Ogbelu had also led his school to win the revived National Principals’ Cup in 2021. So, when he was invited to the Flying Eagles camp, it didn’t come to me as a surprise. Although a teenager in the midst of ‘men’ invited from clubs in the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL), the then SS3 student justified his invitation and made the squad to the 2022 WAFU B Championship in the Niger Republic.
Ogbelu then used the tournament in Niger to clear any lingering doubt about his ability to play for the Flying Eagles. The moment he stepped on the field as a second-half substitute in the opening match against Ghana, he didn’t return to the bench. Soon after his introduction, he brought stability to the midfield and it wasn’t a surprise to many. Those who have watched him play will agree with me that the young Ogbelu is an intelligent player with a great vision. He possesses short- and long-range passes that can effortlessly locate his attacking teammates from any distance. Calm and cool on the ball at all times, he is not known for wayward passes. From his defensive position, he shields the back-line and drives the team forward when attacking. What more can I say, Ogbelu is a smooth operator who does his business silently but effectively. So, the then school boy played a key role in the triumph of the Flying Eagles in Niger where the team qualified for the 2023 AFCON.
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In Egypt, Ogbelu remained a mainstay in the team’s midfield. He stepped up his performance and was the cynosure of all eyes as his ability to calm things down even at anxious moments was a beauty to behold. Although the team lost a key player in Daniel Daga in the opening match against Senegal, he ensured that the Dakkada FC combative midfielder’s absence wasn’t felt too much. He was inarguably one of the standout performers as the Flying Eagles settled for another AFCON bronze medal.
Indeed, Ogbelu was so good that Jose Peseiro listed him among the members of the team that he was planning to invite to the Super Eagles for the 2023 AFCON qualifiers against Guinea-Bissau. Apart from the midfield maestro, Olamilekan Adams, captain Daniel Bameyi and Benjamin Frederick made the Portuguese’s shortlist of outstanding Flying Eagles in Cairo. As a matter of fact, the older Bameyi eventually made it to the Super Eagles for the qualifiers against Guinea Bissau. Although he didn’t make his senior team debut, it was no doubt a memorable moment for the Yum-Yum Academy player.
Furthermore, when the Minister of Youths and Sports Development, Sunday Dare, hosted the team in Abuja, he demanded a standing ovation for Ogbelu. The Minister cited him as one of the many gains of the National Principals’ Cup that he had resuscitated. It was a well-deserved honour for the player who had done so well for the U-20 National team and was nick-named the school boy international.
Against this background, even when there was a serious clamour for Bosso to drop some of the players who had under performed in Egypt for more quality players to be injected into the World Cup-bound team, nobody imagined that Ogbelu would be among those who saw the Promised Land but won’t step into. Therefore, many of us who know the real worth of the player are still wondering what exactly led to his exclusion from the team that is still short on talented players. Surprisingly, I was made to understand that the ‘sin’ committed by the player is that he is too slow. My source quoted Bosso as saying that Ogbelu is too slow for his liking. I then asked if the coach wants Usain Bolt or an ‘all action player’ like Daga whose overzealousness caused his premature exit in Egypt. Bosso should be experienced enough to know that players are different. Moreover, it is his responsibility to work on his players’ weaknesses. If indeed Bosso has dropped Ogbelu who played a key role in Flying Eagles’ qualification for the World Cup because he is too slow, he has committed a serious blunder. A good coach would have worked out a method to give pace to the player even if he was too slow
No player is indispensable so I have no reason to say without Ogbelu whom I adore so much, the Flying Eagles would ‘collect’ in Argentina. But I am still surprised that such a rare talent has no place in the present Flying Eagles squad. Well, I have no doubt in my mind that his absence will be felt greatly when hostilities commence. However, before I am misunderstood, I reiterate that I am not against those who have made the final list but something special is missing in the team and that is the extremely talented Ogbelu. Therefore, I conclude by saying I wish I had the influence to peddle for him to be on the plane to Argentina.